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Merkel Rejects Criticism of Germany's Role In Afghanistan

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a government policy statement on Afghanistan to the Bundestag in Berlin on September 8.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gone before the German parliament in Berlin to defend her government's Afghan policies as international criticism continues to mount over last week's deadly NATO air strike in Konduz.

The strike on September 4, which was ordered by the German military, involved NATO jets bombing two hijacked fuel trucks. Afghan officials say the raid killed scores of people, including many civilians.

But Merkel, speaking to legislators just three weeks before she faces reelection, urged patience while an investigation establishes the facts. She expressed regret for any loss of innocent life.

"Last Friday, the German military had to make one of the most difficult military decisions in its struggle with the Taliban under its ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] mission in Afghanistan," she told legislators in a speech carried live on television.

"Many people died. There are many inconsistent explanations about the results and especially about the victims. We have to explain this very thing," Merkel added. "And even more so, I will tell this straightforwardly. Every innocent person killed in Afghanistan is one too many.”

Afghanistan Rights Monitor, an independent Afghan rights watchdog, said on September 7 that up to 70 civilians had been killed in the strike in the Char Dara district. Earlier, Afghan and NATO officials had said that the strike killed 56 insurgents and wounded 12.

In an interview in the French newspaper "Le Figaro" on September 7, Afghan President Hamid Karzai characterized the strike as a major "error of judgment" by German forces.

Still Have Responsibilities

But Germany has defended the decision by its military commanders. At the same time, it is clear that Berlin is eager to find a way to begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan.

Merkel said German forces still have responsibilities in Afghanistan. But she repeated a call to hold an international conference this year to discuss how best to hand over security responsibilities to the incoming Afghan government, a step that would allow NATO to reduce its troop levels.

"Now, after the second presidential election, is the right moment to define, together with the Afghan leadership, how this assumption of responsibility will take place at the end of this year, in a measurable way," she said.

"We therefore suggest to the secretary-general of the United Nations that a conference be held this year to determine the status and future perspective of Afghan politics," she added.

Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown first announced the initiative at a news conference in Berlin on September 6, saying they were launching it together with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Henning Riecke, a security policy expert at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations, tells RFE/RL that Merkel's speech attempted to addressed mounting domestic concerns about Afghanistan ahead of Germany's national elections on September 27.

"It is a way for her to show in the election campaign that Germany is taking up the responsibility of stabilizing Afghanistan," he says.

No Personal Advantages

Riecke notes that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has prompted calls for a rethink of the existing strategies.

"Many Afghans don't see personal advantages or benefits from the international presence there. If this doesn't work -- the stability part of the mission -- then the whole purpose of the mission to fight terrorism is also lost," he says.

Riecke says that the German debate on Afghanistan is not about whether to announce a date of withdrawal -- a move that would be seen as playing into the hands of the Taliban militia. Instead, the discussion is over the exact role the German military should play, and Berlin's handling of the Konduz bombing controversy.

"Since the attack on the two tankers, we've debated the questions of how long the Bundeswehr [German military] should stay in Afghanistan. And whether the government should explain in greater detail why we're in Afghanistan and what we're doing there," he says.

"But in general, this discussion is not about the substance of being in Afghanistan, because four of the five parties in the Bundestag [German parliament] support the Afghan deployment, and have mandated it in past years."

Germany is the third-largest troop contributor to Afghanistan, after the United States and Britain, and its 4,200 soldiers head the peacekeeping mission in the northern Konduz Province. Last week's bombing incident there highlighted the growing insecurity in parts of northern Afghanistan, particularly in strategically significant Konduz, located along the border with Tajikistan.

Once a Taliban stronghold in the late 1990s, the region had been relatively peaceful until the beginning of this year.

Experts suggest that security in the region has been hurt by both the "national caveat," or combat restrictions, placed by Germany on its peacekeepers in the region, as well as the Taliban's effort to expand its insurgency into Konduz.

Majority Oppose

In July, German and Afghan troops launched a joint offensive in the area, which Afghan officials said was intended in part to stop fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) from fleeing the ongoing Pakistani military offensive along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Three-quarters of the German population oppose Berlin's military presence in Afghanistan. But Riecke says they are opposed mainly to the combat role of the German forces, and that support for their efforts in Afghan reconstruction and stabilization remains strong.

"If you look at the German political elite who have supported the Afghanistan mission, they are always very careful not to do too much -- not to arouse public upheaval," he says.

"But basically no party has ever been voted out of power because they supported Afghanistan. I think there is some room for maneuvering, and the political elite are using it."

Riecke suggests that Afghanistan will remain an important issue in the run-up to the German elections because it gives opponents an opportunity to criticize Merkel's governing Christian Democratic Union party. Critics are likely to focus in particular on Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung.

After last week's bombing in Konduz, Jung had first insisted that the attack only killed Taliban fighters, acknowledging only later that civilians might have died as well. He is widely criticized in German for what critics see as a mishandling of the situation.

"The opposition and the Social Democrats will not give away this opportunity to pick on the conservatives," Riecke notes.

Komila Nabiyeva contributed to this story.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.